Texas couple stands by story after US cardinal pushes back

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VATICAN CITY (AP) – The Texas couple that accused top U.S. Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of mishandling a sexual misconduct case involving his former deputy is denying his office’s claims against them, saying the church is mistreating them the way it mistreats other victims.

DiNardo’s Galveston-Houston diocese has said that the couple fabricated quotes in an Associated Press story and demanded $10 million, and that it “categorically rejects” the story as biased and one-sided. George Pontikes said Wednesday he stood by his comments recounting meetings with DiNardo in 2016 and 2017, and called the diocese’s response disappointing but not surprising.

“It is another example of a smoke screen designed to cover up wrongdoings,” said Pontikes, president and CEO of the Houston-based construction firm Satterfield & Pontikes.

His wife, Laura Pontikes, had approached DiNardo’s Galveston-Houston archdiocese in April 2016 to report that the then-vicar general had taken advantage of problems in her marriage and business to manipulate her into a sexual relationship. Emails turned over to the archdiocese and AP show that while the sexual relationship grew, Rossi heard her confessions, counseled her husband on their marriage and solicited hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations for the church.

Houston police are now investigating. Following inquiries by AP, Rossi’s new bishop placed him on leave Tuesday pending the outcome of the police investigation.

The case is significant because DiNardo is heading up the U.S. Catholic Church’s response to the clergy sex abuse scandal, which exploded anew last year worldwide. As president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, DiNardo will lead a meeting next week to approve new measures for accountability over abuse.

The archdiocese turned down repeated requests from the AP for an interview with DiNardo, with the latest rejection on Wednesday. But it has called the relationship between Rossi and Pontikes consensual, and said in a written statement Tuesday that comments the Pontikeses attributed to DiNardo were “an absolute fabrication.” The statement said DiNardo reacted “swiftly and justly” when Pontikes made the report, removing Rossi from the parish less than a week later and sending him for treatment.

The archdiocese said the treatment center recommended Rossi be returned to active ministry without restrictions, and that DiNardo agreed to the Pontikeses’ request to not reassign him in Houston. In July 2017, Rossi became pastor at Our Lady of the Pines, in Woodville, Texas, in the Beaumont diocese.

The archdiocese cited an Aug. 1, 2017, meeting between Laura Pontikes, her therapist and church official Sister Gina Iadanza in which Pontikes “made, among other requests, a demand for a $10 million payment.” Pontikes disputes that, saying it was Iadanza who told her she needed to find something else to make her happy other than $10 million.

George Pontikes said while he did seek a financial payout to recover the family’s donations as well as punitive damages linked to an unrelated business dispute with the church, he “dropped these demands at Laura’s insistence.” He noted that if they wanted money, they wouldn’t have entered into mediation but would have gone immediately to litigation.

Laura Pontikes made it clear that she was not interested in a financial payout, in emails to the archdiocese in April 2016 and in a letter to the Vatican as recently as April this year.

“I want to reassure you that I do not want anything from you or the church other than my health and spiritual well-being,” she wrote Auxiliary Bishop George Sheltz April 13, 2016, a week after she reported Rossi.

An October 2017 mediation proposal from the Pontikeses asked first for an apology for the behavior of both Rossi and DiNardo, as well as close monitoring of Rossi and the development of new policies concerning inappropriate behavior by priests “to be more compassionate to those affected.” The list ended with unspecified financial amends and reimbursement for mental health services.

In her letter to the Vatican, Laura Pontikes repeated she wasn’t seeking money.

“I want my church to stand up in support of victims,” she wrote.

SNAP, a nationwide group representing victims of church abuse, called upon DiNardo to resign or at least allow another prelate to head next week’s meeting instead of him.

“This case is all-too-typical of how bishops treat adult abuse survivors,” a statement from SNAP said. “Given how Pope Francis himself has recently talked about the difficulties faced by adult victims, we hope that Church leaders here in the United States would recognize those difficulties as well. Sadly, in this case, Cardinal DiNardo has instead compounded them.”

Laura Pontikes pauses during an interview in the prayer section of her apartment in Houston on April 13, 2019. The 55-year-old Texas construction company executive and mother of three had been seeking God when she began spiritual counselling with Monsignor Frank Rossi. The Galveston-Houston archdiocese acknowledged a sexual relationship between Rossi and Pontikes, but asserted that it was consensual. (AP Photo/Wong Maye-E)
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